There was a lot of debate in this forum last year after the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman beaned Andrew McCutchen, and most of it centered on whether the Pirates should respond in kind.
They didn’t, of course, and with both teams again playing well and scheduled to begin an important early-season series in Cincy on Thursday, I think it make sense to revisit the incident. And when you do, the only conclusion you can draw is that it was the turning point in the Pirates’ season and a clear win for the Reds.
The beaning itself, remember, took place in the second game of a three-game series in Cincinnati on Aug. 4. At the time, the Pirates had a record of 60-45 and, even after losing that night, came back to win two in a row to reach the apex of their season at 62-46 — 16 games over .500 — two nights later on Aug. 6.
At that point, however, the Pirates proceeded to lose seven of their next nine and the slide had officially begun. All told, the Pirates’ record after the Aug. 4 beaning was 17-37. If plunking the Pirates’ best player with a 101-mph fastball in the ninth inning of a game in which the Reds already had the lead was Dusty Baker’s way of delivering a message to the Pirates — and you can bet your life it was — the strategy worked better than he could have dared hope.
Quite simply, professional sports is a dog-eat-dog world, and an old-school manager like Baker understands there’s room for only one Alpha male in the pack. The timing of Cutch’s beaning was absolutely no coincidence, and he knew it. That’s why he responded with uncharacteristic anger.
Likewise, it was no coincidence that Chris Leake nailed Josh Harrison in the first inning the following day, thus assuring an automatic ejection for any Pirate who dared retaliate. Translation: We can intimidate you any time we like and there’s nothing you can do about it.
And there wasn’t. For reasons known only to himself, Clint Hurdle never ordered his pitchers to fight back by bouncing a ball off of Joey Votto’s ribs.
I mention all this not because I like the idea of beanball wars or feigned machismo. But I do believe there’s a code in baseball that demands you respond when challenged.
Dusty Baker issued a challenge to the upstart Pirates last year and, instead of fighting back, we cowered. After seeing how well intimidation tactics worked last season, is there any reason to think Baker won’t try the same thing in the coming series?
And if he does, will Hurdle hang his best player out to dry again or is this the year we show a little backbone?